It's all about giving your dog a lead
Training dogs shouldn't involve fear or pain - just act like a leader and they will follow, dog behaviouralist Jan Fennell tells Karlin Lillington
The title of dog behaviouralist Jan Fennell's popular book, The Dog Listener, echoes that of The Horse Whisperer for good reason. The horse whisperer, Monty Roberts, is a close personal friend and mentor.
The two successful animal trainers have become famous for being kind - for using only so-called positive training methods to get animals to do their bidding. Roberts has been the subject of a book and film, while Fennell has become a frequent guest on radio and television programmes in Britain, alongside her successful career as a breeder of Crufts-winning Springer Spaniels.
As a result of this gently, gently approach to their equine and canine charges, they share the honour - and sometimes the ignominy - of being laughed at by those Fennell calls "the flat earth brigade".
These are the trainers and animal owners who still believe the best way to train animals is to punish, force, hit, slap, and use a range of training "aids" that Fennell calls "the weaponry": prong, choke, and electric-shock collars, pinching harnesses and muzzles, whips, spurs, specialised bits for horses.
"It was this that drove me to try and find new methods. No fear. No pain. No gadgets," she says. "Those people truly believe they're right, because it's all they know." At one time it was all she knew as well, and she now believes it was her own misguided belief in traditional, punishment-based training that led her to misread a lively whippet collie crossbreed that she owned. The dog, Purdey, kept getting into trouble - a nip here, some sheep-chasing there, then an incident in which the dog managed to jettison Fennell's small son through a plate-glass window.
Such behaviour ultimately led her to put Purdey down for misbehaving - in human terms. But she now thinks the dog was only behaving the way it believed it should from the instructions she was inadvertently giving it.
"In the most simple terms: she was a dog, a member of the canine not the human family, yet I was using a human language," she writes in The Dog Listener.
Now she is an advocate of an almost speechless method of training in which the word No is never used and owners are coached to learn to strategically ignore their dogs. Controversial, yes, but she has been so adept at helping people with delinquent dogs, and aiding pet owners to improve their relationships with their dogs, that thousands swear by her methods.
The core of her belief is that the basic instincts and social structures of wild dogs and wolves still course through the veins of the average miniature poodle. If you understand that behaviour, and learn to communicate in a language the dog understands, training and endorsing desirable behaviour become a far easier task.
"Monty and I didn't discover anything new. What we say is, we've rediscovered what was there all along," she says.
She believes most undesirable behaviour comes from the dog's attempt to be the leader of its human pack. This both makes the dog anxious over its responsibility to its humans, and causes it to engage in a variety of annoying activities. You name it - barking, jumping up on visitors, aggression, pulling on the lead, soiling indoors, destructiveness, biting, separation anxiety - all caused by our failure to take the leadership role decisively off the dog's shoulders, she says.
"The dog is outjobbed. They get more responsibility than they can handle. Take the job off them!" However, we seem to find this extraordinarily difficult to do.
"People treat their dogs like children," she says regretfully. So, much fuss is made over the dog when we return to the house, as the dog licks and jumps and barks, all behaviours we think of as not just normal, but even submissive to us, the masters.
On the contrary, warns Fennell - watch the alpha male and female, the wolf leaders, return to their pack and this is greeting behaviour that cements their leadership role. When we go all high-voiced and excited, and fuss around our dogs when they greet us at the door, we are in canine terms telling them they are the leader.
Likewise, when we repeatedly shout "no" at a barking or jumping dog, or otherwise scold or push it away, we are in dog terms acknowledging its behaviour and maintaining its belief that it must lead. That's why so many dogs show separation anxiety when their humans go out to work for the day.
"It's desperate because it thinks it has lost its baby," she says.
So, you should, like alpha dogs, learn to studiously ignore your dog for five minutes every time you are reunited with it - even if you've just been upstairs cleaning the bedroom, she says.
Rather than saying "no", show them "no", she advises. "Bring them away by the collar. Show them what is undesirable, and give them something desirable to do." If you act like a leader, your dogs will believe in you, she says. "It's very straightforward. But I won't say it's easy." As a matter of fact, it's not the dogs that need teaching, it's really the owners, Fennell adds.
"We've been getting it wrong for years." Ask her what makes her so passionate about man's best friend, and the answer comes swiftly and unequivocally: "They give so much and all you have to do is to give a little, and you get so much back."
Problem: Separation anxiety
Symptoms: barking, destructiveness, soiling the house when owner is out
Fennell suggests: Your dog thinks it is in charge of you and panics because when you go away, you are "lost". Teach it that you are the alpha leader and entitled to come and go at will by not making a fuss over arrivals and departures. Leave for irregular periods so the dog doesn't get anxious that you are not arriving back "on schedule".
Problem: Nervous aggression
Symptoms: mood swings, destructiveness, biting, jumping on visitors, barking
Fennell suggests: learn to ignore your dog. Like a pack leader, don't acknowledge such activities - not even to scold - as by reacting at all, you are telling the dog it is the leader instead. So no eye-contact, no touching, nothing, until the dog settles.
Problem: soiling in the home Symptoms: urinating and defecating indoors on floors and furniture.
Fennell suggests: Alpha dogs mark their territory with urine and faeces, so stop making the dog believe it is the alpha. Withdraw attention from the dog for five minutes every time you are reunited with it. Clean soiled areas with special enzyme cleaners so the dog won't remark, and re-focus on house-training if needed.
Jan Fennell will give a talk and take questions on dogs and her training methods, and sign books, this Saturday, July 3rd, at 2 p.m. in the large function room, ALSAA sports complex (across from Dublin Airport). Tickets, at â‚¬20, benefit ASH Animal Rescue in Co Wicklow. Tickets may be bought at the door, but as space is limited, please confirm attendance in advance with Michelle Dunne (087-6164245)
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